What is life?
I’ve always asked deep questions.
What is life? What are we made of?
If you could peer inside anything, you would learn that it’s made of atoms. To the ancient Greeks, atom meant indivisible. The smallest unit.
Your body is made of atoms. Its cells are made of proteins and lipids, but proteins and lipids are made of atoms.
Nowadays we know this isn’t the full story. Atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Kids get taught this at school.
Even this isn’t where the buck stops. We now know that protons and neutrons are made of quarks.
Two ‘Up’ quarks and a ‘Down’ quark make a proton, while two ‘Down’ quarks and an ‘Up’ quark make a neutron.
So we know that stuff is made of quarks and electrons, but what are they?
When considering this question, in a New Scientist magazine special edition in 2020, physics Nobel laureate, Sir Roger Penrose, wrote that the best we can do is refer to the mathematical equations that they satisfy.
We know what they do, how they move and interact with one another, but we don’t really know what they are.
It’s not too different a problem from one faced by philosophers who ask questions about life itself.
When you have any sort of experience, say enjoying a conversation, feeling love, or focusing on something, a brain scanner could reveal what your brain is doing at that moment. But what your brain is doing is not the same as you having the experience. It’s not the same as what the experience feels like for you.
This quandary is known as the Hard Problem of Consciousness, a term first coined by philosopher, David Chalmers. Consciousness in this sense refers to one’s first-person subjective experience, or as philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote, the feeling of what it is like to be something. Thus, consciousness equates to experience.
So we know what the brain does while we have an experience, but that’s not the same as having the experience, what the experience is like.
You can see that we have a similar hard problem at the quantum scale. We know what particles do but we don’t know what they are.
Several types of philosophical thought have attempted to address these big questions. The main four approaches are materialism (physicalism), dualism, panpsychism, and idealism (nondualism).
Materialism writes that matter is the basis of all things and that consciousness emerges from the structure of matter. But it’s not yet been able to explain how consciousness emerges. Some materialists assert that consciousness itself is just an illusion. Dualism, on the other hand, says that matter and consciousness (soul) are separate things and neither can impact upon the other. Decartes was one of the most famous dualists.
Panpsychism writes that particles have some form of conscious experience and that it’s the combination of trillions of particles of experience that give rise to human conscious experience.
And Idealism (non-duality) says that matter is an appearance, or an expression, of consciousness, but that consciousness comes first.
No one knows for sure which is correct. Philosophers and neuroscientists are still hotly debating it. Materialism has been the accepted view for a long time, but many philosophers argue that this is not because it’s correct, but because it works for all practical purposes.
This is often the case with things. The idea that gravity is a force that pulls on objects works for all practical purposes, and unless you’re a physicist you will probably live your whole life believing this is what gravity is. But gravity isn’t a force.
It’s a bend, or warp, in space. Massive objects, like stars and planets, bend space so much that things then roll towards them, much as a marble would roll to the centre of a trampoline if you stood on the trampoline.
You are not being pulled to the Earth by the force of gravity. The mass of the Earth stretches the fabric of space, much like you standing on a trampoline stretches its fabric. It means that you are sliding towards the centre of the Earth like a marble on the trampoline, but the ground stops you sliding all the way. Gravity just seems like a force.
And thinking of it as a force works for all practical purposes.
Materialism makes sense, but for it to be true we have to dismiss as flawed all the research that indicates that we might be connected to each other, like brain scan studies that show one person’s brain responding to the state of someone else’s brain, even when they’re separated by a distance.
In my opinion, this body of research is very large and the statistics compelling. It would be quite difficult to justify dismissing all of it. I believe we really are connected and that connections show up as stronger in people you feel connected with. Some research has indeed found this to be the case. The connection is through our consciousness.
Suppose it is true, then, that we’re connected through our consciousness. Where does this leave us?
It’s my personal belief that consciousness is our underlying reality and that everything also has some form of experience. I’m not suggesting an atom in my sofa or a lump of rock enjoy watching Netflix, but that they have some rudimentary, alien to us, form of consciousness.
If everything is an expression of consciousness, then everything is consciousness in different forms. Everything then is, and therefore has, consciousness.
There’s no way of knowing if this is the truth about life.
If it is true, that or thereabouts, it doesn’t mean we have to abandon the way we do things in the world. Materialism is still a highly useful way to think about things in the same way that gravity as a force is useful. Life goes on as it always has.
So what’s the point of this anyway?
Maybe none. I just like to ask these sorts of questions. Some do, some don’t. We might be all connected but we’re all unique too.
Or maybe there is a point that relates to love, compassion and kindness.
For me, the idea that everything is connected feels wondrous. It feels expansive. That we’re all part of something. That we’re all family of sorts. Humans, animals, plants, fish, birds, insects.
Everything is alive.
Everything is part of You. And part of Me. And you are part of everything.
Why, then, I often ask myself, would one ever wish to cause harm to anyone?
For me, the natural way to be, then, is to love, be kind, be compassionate.
Lift others. Support each other. Be a friend. Help those in need. Be kind.
In a deep sense, unkindness to someone is unkindness to yourself since you and the other person are connected. Part of the same thing. Like pissing in the swimming pool, so to speak. You have to swim in the same water.
I’ve noticed in life that when I entertain thinking along these lines, that everything is connected, I feel better. Connected. Not alone. Supported, even when that doesn’t seem physically obvious.
The natural instinct is towards compassion for the suffering or others and the pull to help where we can. If consciousness is the foundation of everything, then maybe this natural pull is reflected throughout our physical world. In relationships. We naturally gravitate towards being with one another or helping those in need just as objects in the universe naturally gravitate towards each other.
Each consciousness causes a bend, or warp, in the fabric of consciousness and we therefore naturally fall towards each other.
Maybe this is what falling in love is.
Gravity holds the physical universe together. Love holds people together. Two expressions of consciousness, two sides of the same coin.
This is how I think about life.
Not all the time.
But it feels like a nice thought when I have it and it reminds me to be kind.
Copyright 2023 David R. Hamilton PhD.